Ellen McGeeney knew she had landed in a different kind of company when her boss at family-owned soft drink maker Ale-8-One told her to generate a 50-year plan.

She said Fielding A. Rogers, the great great nephew of founder G. L. Wainscott, also told her that as the company’s president, she had two main objectives: to grow the company – and not to ruin it.

Ellen McGeeney
Ellen McGeeney

McGeeney, the featured speaker at the monthly Venture Connectors meeting, said many lessons learned by Wainscott almost a century ago apply to entrepreneurs today. Wainscott had an optimism that wouldn’t quit, she said. And, like most entrepreneurs, he was cheap.

After working in hospitality, coal and lumber industries, Wainscott started a bottling company in 1902. He launched Roxa-Kola, inspired by his wife, Roxanne, in 1906 and was promptly sued by Coca Cola.

Though the soft drink giant lost the suit, the episode prompted Wainscott to produce something new. In his search for a unique product, he heard about the popularity of ginger beer in northern Europe, where he traveled and bought recipes from companies that had gone out of business.

In 1926, Wainscott launched Ale-8-One, and nearly 90 years later, the family retains control of the business – and the secret recipe. The soda is bottled in Winchester, Ky. The product is enjoying a growing popularity, thanks in part to a new expansion and marketing strategy adopted under McGeeney’s leadership. The brand recently has gotten coverage in national magazines and newspapers.

McGeeney’s strategy relies in large part on conveying the company’s history and the brand’s essence and personality. To understand the brand’s loyalty, the company gathered focus groups and interviewed longtime customers, including climbers at Miguel’s Pizza. After a successful climb in the Red River Gorge, it has been tradition to eat a pizza at Miguel’s and wash it down with an Ale-8-One, McGeeney said. The company sells about a hundred cases per week at the pizzeria.

The company also has benefited because its strengths have overlapped with recent trends, including hand-crafting, consumer’s demand for authenticity, and the rising popularity of Bourbon, which goes together nicely with the ginger-flavored Ale-8-One. (Try a Maker’s 8 Slushy by adding five to six ounces of Ale-8-One to one ounce of Maker’s Mark. Pour into a glass with ice, gently stir and serve.)

At today’s Venture Connectors meeting, McGeeney passed around a volumetric flask with part of the company’s secret recipe. While audience members got a whiff of the ginger aroma, McGeeney said the amount of liquid in the small flask was enough for 600 bottles of Ale-8-One.

An eighth-generation Kentuckian, McGeeney holds a bachelor’s from Brown University and an MBA from Yale. She previously owned online grocery and food distributor Grasshopper Distribution and has worked in consumer products, health care, communications and technology industries. She joined Ale-8-One in 2013.

Though Ale-8-One is “a David in an industry of giants,” McGeeney said the current owners have no interest in selling the brand. Rogers told her that he did not really feel as though Ale-8-One was his to sell, and that he was merely the company’s current steward.

Boris Ladwig

Boris Ladwig

Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.